The term galley
can refer to any
ship propelled
primarily by man-
power, using oars.
Oars are known
from at least the
time of the Egypt-
ian Old Kingdom.
Most galleys also
used masts and
sails as a secon-
dary means of propulsion. This definition excludes almost all human-powered ships in the Chinese cultural area. There, first yulohs and then, treadmill-operated paddle wheels dominated warship propulsion. This explains why galleys were little developed in East Asia.

Various types of galleys dominated naval warfare in the Mediterranean Sea from the time of Homer to the development of effective naval gunnery around the 15th and 16th centuries. Galleys fought in the wars of ancient Persia, Greece, Carthage and Rome until the 4th century. After the fall of the Roman Empire, galleys saw continued, if somewhat reduced, use by the Byzantine Navy and other successors, as well as by the new Muslim states. Medieval Mediterranean states (notably the Italian maritime republics like Venice, Pisa, Genoa) made use of galleys until the ocean-going man of war rendered them obsolete. The Battle of Lepanto, in 1571, proved one of the largest naval battles in which the galley played the principal part. Galleys continued in mainstream use until the introduction of the broadside sailing ship into the Mediterranean in the 17th Century and then continued to function in minor and auxiliary roles until the advent of steam propulsion.

Ancient Galleys

The First Galleys

Galleys traversed the Mediterranean from perhaps 3000 BC. The Phoenicians and the Greeks built and operated the first known ships to navigate the Mediterranean: merchant vessels with square-rigged sails. The first military vessels, as described in the works of Homer and represented in paintings, had a single row of oarsmen along each side (in addition to the sail) to provide speed and maneuverability.

Early sailors had very little in the way of navigational tools. Most ancient and medieval shipping used coastal routes because of ease of navigation, the availability of trading opportunities and coastal currents and winds that could be used to work against and around prevailing winds. Galleys were always more coastal than sailing ships because they needed more frequent re-supply of fresh water, had a greater vulnerability to storms and could use more bays and beaches, as harbors, than sailing ships. Galleys were well adapted to amphibious warfare. They could go up rivers, operate in very shallow water of a meter or so, or even be dragged overland to be launched on lakes, or other branches of the sea. In antiquity the most famous portage was the diolkos of Corinth. At least as early as 429 BC, (Thucydides 2.56.2) but probably earlier, (Herodotus 6.48.2, 7.21.2, 7.97) galleys were adapted to carry horses so that troops, landed by galley, could have cavalry support.

The compass did not come in to use for navigation until the 13th century AD, and the development of sextants, octants and accurate marine chronometers, together with the mathematics required to determine longitude and latitude, had to wait until considerably later. Ancient sailors navigated by means of the sun and of the prevailing wind. By the first millennium BC they had started using the stars to navigate at night. By 500 BC they had the sounding lead (Herodotus 2.5). The implications for ship design meant that maneuverability remained paramount for coast-hugging and threading through archipelagos, while reliable (non-wind-based) speed became a sine qua non for daylight expeditions across open water. Massed oars provided the optimal technological solution to the problems.


The development of the ram in about 800 BC changed the nature of naval warfare, which had until that point involved boarding and hand-to-hand fighting. Now a more maneuverable ship could render a slower ship useless by staving in its sides. Some doubt exists as to whether the winners in naval encounters usually sank defeated galleys. The Greek word for "sunk" can also mean "waterlogged", and reports survive of victorious galleys towing the defeated ship away after a battle. The paucity of archaeological remains of sunken ships, in comparison with the abundance of galleys according to the writings of contemporaries, provides further evidence that victors may not have commonly sunk defeated ships. The most famous part of any galley to survive in the sea, from antiquity, is the Athlit bronze ram. The only other parts of ancient galleys to survive are parts of two Punic biremes off western Sicily (see Basch & Frost, & Frost). These Punic galleys are estimated to have been 35 m long, 4.80 m wide, with a displacement tonnage of 120 tonnes. These biremes had evidence of an easily breakable pointed ram, more like the Assyrian image than the Athlit ram. The suggestion is that this type of ram was designed to break, in order to protect the ramming vessel from otherwise damaging itself. Galleys were hauled out of the water at every reasonable opportunity to keep them dry, light and fast and free from worm, rot and seaweed. The hulls of the Punic wrecks had evidence for being sheathed in lead. Galleys were usually overwintered in ship sheds which leave a distinctive archeology.

Building an efficient galley posed difficult technical problems. A ship traveling at high speed creates a bow-wave and has to expend considerable energy climbing this wave instead of increasing its speed. The longer the ship, the faster it can travel before this effect hampers it, but the available technology in the ancient Mediterranean made long ships difficult to construct. Through a process of trial and error, the monoreme — a galley with one row of oars on each side — reached the peak of its development in the penteconter, about 38 m long, with 25 oarsmen on each side. Historians believe that it could reach speeds of about 9 knots (18 km/h), only a knot or so slower than modern rowed racing-boats. To keep a ship of the penteconter's length light, required that its builders stretch tensioned cables between the bow and stern. This also kept the joints of the hull under compression - tighter, and more waterproof. The tension in the modern trireme replica anti-hogging cables was 300 kNewtons (Morrison p198).

Biremes and Triremes

Around the 7th or 6th century BC the design of galleys changed. Shipbuilders, probably first in Phoenicia, added a second row of oars above the first, creating the biere or bireme (although probably neither term was used at the time). The idea was copied around the Mediterranean from the Phoenicians (seafaring people who lived on the southern and eastern coasts of the Mediterranean). Very soon afterwards, a third row of oars was added, by adding an outrigger to the hull of a bireme. These new galleys became known as trieres ("three-fitted";) in Greek; the Romans called this design the triremis (in English, "trireme"). The origin of these changes remains uncertain; Thucydides attributes the innovation to the boat-builder Aminocles of Corinth in about 700 BC, but some scholars distrust this and suggest that the design came from Phoenicia. Herodotus (484 BC - ca. 425 BC) provides the first mention of triremes in action: he mentions that Polycrates, tyrant of Samos from 535 BC to 515 BC, had triremes in his fleet in 539 BC.

The early 5th century BC saw a conflict between the city-states of Greece and the expansionist Persian Empire under Darius (reigned 521 - 485 BC) and Xerxes (reigned 485 - 465 BC), who hired ships from their Phoenician satrapies.

The Athenians defeated the first invasion force on land at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, but saw the waging of land battles against the more numerous Persians as hopeless in the long term. When news came that Xerxes had started to amass an enormous invasion force in Asia Minor, the Greek cities expanded their navies: in 482 BC the Athenian leader Themistocles started a program for the construction of 200 triremes. The project must have met with considerable success, as 150 Athenian triremes reputedly saw action in the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC and participated in the defeat of Xerxes' invasion fleet there.

Triremes fought in the naval battles of the Peloponnesian War (431 - 404 BC), including the Battle of Aegospotami in 405 BC, which sealed the defeat of the Athenian Empire by Sparta and her allies.

Quinqueremes And Polyremes

In the 4th century BC, after the Peloponnesian War, navies experienced a shortage of oarsmen of sufficient skill to man large numbers of triremes. The search for designs of galley that would allow oarsmen to use muscle-power instead of skill led Dionysius of Syracuse (ruled 405 - 367 BC) to build tetreres (quadriremes) and penteres (quinqueremes).

According to modern historians, the numbers used to describe these larger galleys counted the number of rows of men on each side, and not the numbers of oars. Thus quadriremes had three possible designs: one row of oars with four men on each oar, two rows of oars with two men on each oar or three rows of oars with two men pulling the top oars on each side. Probably galleys of all three designs existed. Scholars believe that quinqueremes had three rows of oars, with two men pulling each of the top two oars.

Along with the change in galley design came an increased reliance on tactics such as boarding and using warships as platforms for artillery. In the wars of the Diadochi (322 - 281 BC), the successors to the empire of Alexander the Great built increasingly bigger and bigger galleys. Macedon in 340 BC built sexiremes (probably with two men on each of three oars) and in 315 BC septiremes, which saw action at the Battle of Salamis in Cyprus (306 BC). Demetrius I of Macedon (reigned 294 - 288 BC), involved in a naval war with Ptolemy of Egypt (reigned 323 - 283 BC), built eights (octeres), nines, tens, twelves and finally sixteens! Later Ptolemies continued this trend of expansion, creating twenties and thirties and, during the reign of Ptolemy IV, a monstrous forty over 400 feet long that was probably intended as a showpiece. According to a detailed description of the forty, the ship had two prows and two sterns, and this and other evidence has led some to believe that the forty, and probably the twenties and thirties, were constructed like huge catamarans with enough space between the hulls for the rowers in the middle to operate. The deck above them, stretching across the two hulls, could accommodate a couple of thousand marines.

The political unification of the entire Mediterranean sea, under the Roman Empire, reduced the need for warships of any kind. By AD 79 the Roman navy had probably nothing larger than a quadrireme in service. For Pliny the Elder, commander of the fleet, investigated the eruption of Vesuvius in a quadrireme (Pliny the younger 6,16), presumably his flagship and the largest class of vessel in the fleet. We last hear of triremes, from Zosimus, in 324 when Constantine's son Crispus defeated Licinius in the battle of the Hellespont allegedly 200 triremes were defeated by 80 30-oared vessels (Morrisson p8 who gives the wrong year). Galleys with two banks of oars were known in the 9th and 12th centuries but no continuity of development through the Dark Ages can be established. Ships in ancient world, presumed to include galleys, were constructed skin first, with the frame inserted later. Medieval ships including galleys were constructed frame first. For this intermediate period see the Roman Navy and Byzantine Navy articles.

Later Galleys

Medieval Galley Specifications

The earliest galley specification comes from an order of Charles I of Sicily, in 1275 AD (in both Bass & Pryor). All lengths in metres. Overall length 39.30 m, keel length 28.03 m, depth 2.08 m. Hull width 3.67 m. Width between outriggers 4.45 m. 108 oars, most 6.81 m long, some 7.86 m, 2 steering oars 6.03 m long. Foremast and middle mast respectively heights 16.08 m, 11.00 m; circumference both 0.79 m, yard lengths 26.72 m, 17.29 m. Overall deadweight tonnage approximately 80 metric tons. This type of vessel had two, later three, men on a bench but each working his own oar. This vessel had much longer oars than the Athenian trireme which were 4.41 m & 4.66 m long (Morrison p269). The Athenian vessel, of much the same overall dimensions, was very different is almost every other respect.

Medieval galleys like this would pioneer the use of naval guns, pointing forward as a supplement to the above waterline beak, which was designed to break the enemies outrigger. Only in the 16th century did ships called galleys develop with many men to each oar (Pryor p67).

At the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, the standard Venetian war galleys were 42 m long and 5,1 m wide (6,7 m with the rowing frame), had a draught of 1,7 m and a freeboard of 1,0 m, and weighed empty about 140 tons. The larger flagship galleys (or lanterns) were 46 m long and 5,5 m wide (7,3 m with the rowing frame), had 1,8 m draught and 1,1 m freeboard. and weighed 180 tons. The standard galleys had 24 rowing benches on each side, with three rowers to a bench. (One bench on each side was typically removed to make space for platforms carrying the skiff and the stove, respectively.) The crew typically comprised 10 officers, about 65 sailors, gunners and other staff plus 138 rowers. The lanters had 27 benches on each side, with 156 rowers, and a crew of 15 officers and about 105 other sailors, gunners and soldiers. The regular galleys carried one 50-pound cannon or a 32-pound culverin at the bow as well as four lighter cannon and four swivel guns. The larger lanterns carried one heavy gun plus six 12 and 6 pound culverins and eight swivel guns.

Surviving Galleys

The naval museum in Istanbul contains the galley Kadirga (Turkish for "galley"), albeit without its masts. The ship dates from the late 15th or early 16th century and presumably is the only surviving galley in the world. It was in service until 1839. It is 37 m long and 5.7 m wide and has a draught of about 2 m. It weighs about 140 tons. Its 48 oars were powered by 144 oarsmen.

Another galley, although only a replica, can be seen in the Museu Marítim in Barcelona. It is a 1971 reconstruction of the Real, the flagship of Don Juan de Austria in the Battle of Lepanto 1571. The ship is 60 m long and 6.2 m wide, has a draught of 2.1 m, weighs 239 tons empty, was propelled by a total of 290 rowers, and carried about 400 crew and fighting soldiers at Lepanto. She was, however, substantially larger than the typical galleys of her time.

Medieval Merchant Galleys

In the 14th and 15th centuries, merchant galleys traded high-value goods and passengers, especially pilgrims to the Holy Land, around the Mediterranean and to and from the Black Sea, in one direction, and to Bruges and Southampton in the other direction. Although primarily sailing vessels, they used oars to enter and leave many trading ports of call. In 1447, for instance, Florentine galleys planned to call at 14 ports on their way to and from Alexandria (Pryor p57). The availability of oars enabled these ships to navigate close to the shore where they could exploit land and sea breezes and coastal currents, to work reliable and comparatively fast passages against the prevailing wind. The large crews also provided protection against piracy. These ships were very seaworthy; a Florentine great galley left Southampton on 23 February 1430 and returned to its port at Pisa in 32 days. They were so safe that merchandise was often not insured (Mallet). These ships increase in size over the period and were the template from which the galleas developed.

Galleys In Northern Europe

Unlike ancient mediterranean galleys there is good archaeological evidence for Dark Age northern galleys from ship burials. The most stunning is the Gokstad ship. A development of the Viking longships and knaars, medieval north European galleys, clinker-built, used a square sail and rows of oars, and looked very like their Norse predecessors.

In the waters off the west of Scotland between 1263 and 1500, the Lords of the Isles used galleys both for warfare and for transport around their maritime domain, which included the west coast of the Scottish Highlands, the Hebrides, and Antrim in Ireland. They employed these ships for sea-battles and for attacking castles or forts built close to the sea. As a feudal superior, the Lord of the Isles required the service of a specified number and size of galleys from each holding of land. Examples include the Isle of Man, which had to provide six galleys of 26 oars; and Sleat in Skye, which had to provide an 18-oar galley.

Carvings of galleys on tombstones from 1350 onwards show the construction of these boats. From the 14th century, they abandoned a steering-oar in favour of a stern rudder, with a straight stern to suit. From a document of 1624, a galley proper would have 18 to 24 oars, a birlinn 12 to 18 oars and a lymphad fewer still.

The Galleass Warship

The galleass or "galliass" (known as a "mahon" in Turkey) developed from large merchant galleys. As converted for military use they were higher and larger than regular ("light") galleys. They had as many as thirty-two oars, each worked by up to 5 men. They usually carried three masts and had a forecastle and aftcastle. Much effort was made in Venice to make these galleasses as fast as they could be so they could compete with regular galleys. The gun-deck usually ran over the rowers' heads, although pictures showing the opposite arrangement exist. Galleasses usually carried more sails than true galleys, and were far deadlier; a galley caught broadside lay all but helpless, but coming broadside to a galleass, as with a ship of the line, merely exposed an attacker to her gunfire. The galleass exemplified an intermediate type between the galley and the true man-of-war. Relatively few galleasses were built - one disadvantage was that, being more reliant on sails, their position at the front of the galley line at the start of a battle could not be guaranteed - but they featured at the Battle of Lepanto (7 October 1571), their firepower helping to win victory for the Christian fleet, and some sufficiently seaworthy galleasses accompanied the Spanish Armada in 1588 (e.g. La Girona). In the Mediterranean, with its shallower waters, less dangerous weather and fickle winds, galleasses and galleys alike continued in use, particularly in Venice and Turkey, long after they became regarded as obsolete elsewhere. Later, "round ships" and galleasses were replaced by galleons and ships of the line which originated in northern Europe. The first Venetian ship of the line was built in 1660.

Galliots And Fustas

The galliot emerged as a smaller, lighter type of galley. The number of oars or sweeps varied from 18 to 22 per side, the larger ones having twenty-five on each side.

The fusta or fuste, likewise, was in essence a small galley -- a narrow, light and fast ship with shallow draft, powered by both oars and sail. It had 12 to 15 two-man rowing benches on each side, and a single mast with a lateen (triangular) sail. The fusta was the favorite ship of the North African corsairs of Salé and the Barbary Coast. Its speed, mobility, capability to move without wind, and its ability to operate in shallow water made it an ideal vessel for war and piracy.

Galley Slaves

For ancient galley designs, with each rower being solely responsible for managing one oar, rowing was a skilled job, performed by trained volunteers. If, in times of need, it became necessary to use slaves, these were typically freed and trained first. However, for later designs, with 3 to 7 people handling one oar, individual skill mattered less, and it became possible to use slaves and even a leash.

It became the custom among the Mediterranean powers to sentence condemned criminals to row in the war-galleys of the state (initially only in time of war). Galley-slaves lived in unsavoury conditions, so even though some sentences prescribed a restricted number of years, most rowers would eventually die, even if they survived shipwreck and slaughter or torture at the hands of enemies or of pirates. All naval forces often turned 'infidel' prisoners-of-war into galley-slaves.

Several well-known historical figures served time as galley slaves after being captured by the enemy -- the Ottoman corsair and admiral Turgut Reis and the Maltese Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette among them.

The Last Galleys

The decline of the galley was extremely protracted, beginning before the development of cannon and continuing slowly for centuries. As early as 1304 the type of ship required by the Danish defence organisation changed from galley to cog, a flat-bottomed sailing ship (Bass p191). Large high-sided sailing ships had always been very formidable obstacles for galleys. As early as 413 BC defeated triremes could seek shelter behind a screen of merchant ships (Thucydides (7, 41), Needham 4, pt3, p693). In the Mediterranean, the decline of the galley began at around 1595-1605 AD. This corresponds to an influx of Dutch and English merchantmen. These were so heavily armed and manned and were so seaworthy that they could compete simultaneously by trade and theft, as pirates. Venetian galleys could barely cope with their piracy in summer, but were no answer to their piracy in winter (Tenenti).

Because of their low freeboard and lack of storage capacity, war-galleys were always somewhat fair weather, inshore and short-range vessels. As the merchant marine became more numerous, open-water and winter-sailing, galleys became irrelevant before they became obsolete in battle.

The late 15th century saw the beginning of the development of the man-of-war, a truly ocean-going warship, carrying advanced sails that permitted tacking into the wind, and heavily armed with cannon. The man-of-war eventually rendered the galley obsolete except for operations close to shore in calm weather. Galleys had already become unusual by the end of the 17th Century, when Captain Kidd chose this design for his privateering ship, the Adventure Galley.

Galleys remained a mainstay of North African corsair fleets and continued to play a significant role in the Mediterranean well into the 18th century. They made one of their final appearances in a Mediterranean battle in the Battle of Chesma in 1770; they lingered on in the shallow Baltic Sea and took part in the Russo-Swedish War in 1790.

In America they were used in the Battle of Valcour Island in 1776. Galleys were also used during the Revolutionary War by whalers who used their ships to raid British shipping along the American coast. These raiding parties were useful in supplying the continental army with many much needed supplies.

A French galley and Dutch men-of-war off a port by en:Abraham Willaerts, painted en:17th century - Click To Enlarge